Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Bigger, Meaner And Leaner : Singapore's Independence-Class Littoral Mission Vessel

RSS Independence in 2016. Photo : MINDEF

Smarter, Faster And Sharper?

The official MINDEF news release announcing the launch of the Republic of Singapore Navy's ( RSN ) first of eight littoral mission vessels ( LMV ) on the 3rd of July 2015 screamed : Smarter, Faster And Sharper : Singapore Navy Launches First Littoral Mission Vessel. Personally, I think Bigger, Meaner And Leaner might describe these new ships better. Read on to find out.

The Littoral Mission Vessel at a glance. Source : MINDEF

Littoral Mission Vessel

What's a littoral mission vessel? A littoral mission vessel or LMV is simply a large offshore patrol vessel ( OPV ) if you are more familiar with that term. As the name implies, they are supposed to operate in littoral environments, that is, shallow coastal waters not too far from the shore. They are also designed to be modular and configurable for different missions. The 8 LMVs planned are to replace 11 of the RSN's existing Fearless-class Patrol Vessels ( PV ) which have been in service since 1997.

Their primary mission is to ensure the maritime security of the Port of Singapore and the surrounding territorial waters, ultimately contributing towards the seaward defense of Singapore. They are the work horses of the Navy.

The RSN's early generation Patrol Craft was replaced by the
Patrol Vessels in 1997. The PV will in turn be replaced
by the LMV. Source : Republic of Singapore Navy

After holding a name-the-vessel contest earlier in the year, the RSN selected eight names that reflected the theme of Singapore's nationhood. These are also ideals that Singapore's pioneers and the founding Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, fought for, as well as the attributes that they exemplified. They will be named RSS Independence, RSS Sovereignty, RSS Unity, RSS Justice, RSS Indomitable, RSS Fortitude, RSS Dauntless, and RSS Fearless. Collectively, they are the Independence-class Littoral Mission Vessels.

The LMV is jointly designed by local ship builder Singapore Technologies Marine ( ST Marine ) and SAAB Kockums AB of Sweden, working closely with the Defense Science and Technology Agency ( DSTA ), taking into account the unique requirements of the RSN. Apart from submarines, Kockums is also famous for building Sweden's iconic Visby-class stealth corvettes and would no doubt have brought to the table their wealth of experience in the designing and building of low observability vessels.

The contract to build the LMVs was awarded to ST Marine in 2013. The ships are being constructed at ST Marine's Benoi Shipyard at the Jurong Industrial Area. According to MINDEF, the first LMV is scheduled to be delivered in 1Q2016 and all are expected to be fully operational by the year 2020, by which time the existing PV fleet would have reached the end of their operational life after being in service for more than 20 years.

Launch of the RSS Independence at ST Marine's Benoi shipyard
on 3rd July 2015. Source : RSN

RSS Independence was launched by Dr Ivy Lim, wife of the
Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen. Source : RSN

One look at the LMV's exterior, especially of the rounded composite mast, and you would have realised that stealth is an inherent part of the ship's design. There are also no funnels to discharge engine exhaust and emit infra-red signature. Stealth technology has found its way to almost every class of modern warships nowadays and the Navy would be foolish not to embrace it.

Not so immediately obvious is the fact that the LMV is also purpose designed around the theme of minimizing manpower requirements. In fact I could argue that the LMV owed its existence mainly to the lack of manpower within the RSN. Anything that can be automated would have been automated. The ship's sensor, weapons and systems are constructed to allow for easy accessibility and simple maintenance. The LMV's layout is also such that all the major command and control centres of the ship are integrated together at the same location at the bridge. This co-location of the Bridge ( command and navigation ), Combat Information Centre or CIC ( sensors and weapons ), the Machinery Control Room or MCR ( engineering ), is known as the Integrated Command Centre and it integrates and synergises the management of navigation, engineering and combat functions.

On the other hand, it could also mean that a hit at the bridge could wipe out the entire command of the ship. To realise how radical this integrated concept is, just take a look at RSN's Victory-class missile corvettes ( MCV ) which are a generation older. The CIC is actually located two decks below the bridge and the two centres are physically linked by a steep flight of spiral stairs. When the ship closes up for Action Station, the commanding officer is at the bridge while his deputy, the executive officer, is in the CIC. That way a single hit cannot take out all the senior command.

LMV sailing across a console displaying a digital map of Singapore :
a networked, everything integrated ship. Source : RSN

The LMV is marginally faster than the PV which has a
maximum speed of 22 knots. It has a helideck that can
accommodate a medium-lift helicopter including the S-70B
shown above. It can also deploy up to two RHIBs.

Superior suite of sensors : LMV superimposed on digital map of
Australia / Indo-Pacific. Could an up scaled version
be the Armidale-class replacement that the RAN is looking for?  Source : RSN

LMV Characteristics

Length             : 80m
Beam               : 12m
Draught           :  3m
Displacement  : 1250 tonnes
Speed              : In excess of 27 knots
Endurance       : 3500 nautical miles ( 14 days )
Complement   : 23 ( including 5 Officers )
Engines           : 4 x MTU 20V 4000 M93L diesel engines.
Configuration  : Combined Diesel and Diesel ( CODAD )

Sensors           :  Thales NS100 3D surveillance radar
                          Kelvin Hughes SharpEye Navigation Radar
                          Stelop Compass D Electro-Optic Director
                          Stelop 360 All-Round Surveillance System

Weapons        :  OTO Melara 76.2mm Super Rapide Main Gun
                         Rafael 25mm Tyhoon Remote Weapon Station
                         2 x OTO Melara 12.7mm Hitrole RWS
                         12 x MDBA VL-Mica
                         2 x LRAD Long Range Acoustic Device
                         2 x Water Cannon System

Others             : Helicopter Deck for one Medium Lift Helicopter
                         Launch and Recovery System for 2 x RHIBs
                         or Protector USV

MTU 20V 4000 M93L Diesel Engines

MTU has been providing diesel engines to power RSN ships for many years. The MCVs, PVs, FFGs are all powered by MTU diesels. RSN has now selected MTU's 20V 4000 M93L diesel engine for the LMVs.  This compact engine has 20 cylinders in V configuration. The cylinders have a bore of 170mm and a stroke of 190mm so each will have a displacement of 4.313 litres. Multiply that by 20 and you get the total displacement of 86.26 litres for each engine. Fuel consumption is said to be 1135.7 litres per hour and each engine weighs 15587 kg. The LMV will be equipped with four of these engines, known for their low consumption and long service life, with each unit producing 4300kW (5766bhp) at 2100 rpm. From the product data sheet " MTU Series 4000 diesel engines offer unrivalled power density in terms of volume-to power ratio and power-to-weight ratio. ". A good choice for a small vessel.

The MTU Series 4000 V20 Diesel displacing 86260 cc.
Four will power each LMV. Source : MTU

Thales NS100 3D Naval Air And Surface Surveillance Radar

The NS100 is Thales' new generation of 3D air and surface surveillance naval radar which combines state of the art S Band Active Electronically Scanned Array ( AESA ) antenna technology and dual axis multi-beam processing. This new concept enables simultaneous detection of a large variety of targets from fast jets to hovering helicopters to sea skimming missiles to high diving munitions to small UAVs, all in one single mode.

The NS100 can be integrated with other sensors like the Scout Mk3 FMCW Radar for LPI ( Low Probability of Intercept ) and dual band surface surveillance, IR camera for nearby situational awareness, AIS ( Automatic Identification System for ships ), ADS-B ( Automatic Dependent Surveillance - Broadcast for air traffic management ), and IFF ( Identification Friend or Foe ) interrogator and transponder. This creates a multi-sensor integrated solution saving space and also optimizes overall field of view when all sensors are positioned together topside.

The NS100 has an instrumented range of 200km. It is capable of 3D air surveillance and weapon support for active missiles, 2D surface surveillance, surface gun fire support, jammer surveillance and IFF interrogation support. It has a physical dimension of 3m by 3m. Its MTBCF ( mean time before critical failure ) is 3000 hours. A mean radar for a small ship.


The Thales NS100 3D radar. Source : Thales

 Kelvin Hughes SharpEye Navigation Radar

The SharpEye solid state radar system is a digital radar technology that is available in X and S Band frequencies. It is an affordable navigation and surface search pulse Doppler radar sensor offering high reliability ( solid state, no moving parts, no magnetron, low maintenance ), low cost of ownership, and improved detection ranges especially of small targets in clutter ( think inclement weather, high sea states ).

The Kelvin Hughes Sharpeye Navigation Radar's upmast transceiver. Source : Kelvin Hughes

Traditional radar in heavy rain : details lost in heavy clutter

SharpEye in heavy rain : minimal clutter

STELOP 360 All-Round Surveillance System and Compass D Electro-Optic Director

There is not much publicly available information regarding these STELOP products but I guess the 360 could be a all-weather day and night high resolution camera system. The Compass D could be an imagery system for target identification. STELOP is a subsidiary company of ST Engineering, a sister company of ST Marine.

 OTO Melara 76/62 Super Rapid Gun Mount 

The Italian made OTO Melara 76.2mm Super Rapid naval gun can be found on almost every major RSN surface combatant starting from the Victory-class missile corvettes in the eighties, with the trend continuing in the Fearless-class patrol vessels, the Endurance-class landing platform dock, the Formidable-class stealth frigates and now the LMVs. This light weight and space saving 62 calibre gun can be mounted on relatively small ships and has a maximum rate of fire of 120 rounds per minute. It can be used against surface as well as air threats, including missiles, up to a maximum range of 16km. The barrel can be elevated from -15° to +85°. Automatic loading is provided through a below deck revolving magazine which holds 80 rounds and rapid reloading is easily undertaken even during firing action by two ammunition handlers.

The OTO Melara 76/62 Super Rapide Gun Mount on the missile corvette RSS Valour circa 1999. Source Wikipedia

Rafael 25mm Typhoon RWS

The Rafael Typhoon is a light weight, stabilized, remotely controlled weapons station that can be mounted with various small and medium calibre guns, as well as missiles, grenade launchers and even decoys. In this case it is mated with a M242 Bushmaster 25mm chain gun. The on-mount electro-optical director has colour CCD for day operations, FLIR for night operations, and an eye-safe laser range finder. It has its own ballistic computer for calculating firing solutions and an automatic tracker. The entire mount weighs less than 1000kg and does not require deck penetration making it ideal for small vessels. One stern facing Typhoon RWS will be installed on the LMV. They will be used for force protection especially against asymmetrical threats like a swarm of fast boats. They are also found on the RSN's Endurance-class LPD and Formidable-class FFGs with two mounted on each ship.

The 25mm Typhoon RWS is also known in the USN as the
Mk38 Mod2 seen here on DDG-103 circa 2013.
Note the on-mount EO director. Source : US Navy.

OTO Melara 12.7mm Hitrole RWS

The OTO Melara 12.7mm Hitrole remotely controlled naval turret is rather similar to the Typhoon RWS except it has a smaller calibre. Hitrole is the acronym for Highly Integrated Turret, Remote, Overhead, Light, Electrical. It is gyro-stabilized. Two of these would be installed at the bridge-wing area, port and starboard. They would replace the traditional 4 x Chartered Industries of Singapore CIS 0.5in Heavy Machine Guns mounted all around the bridge-wing on the older RSN vessels.

The OTO Melara 12.7mm Hitrole Remote Controlled Naval Turret.
Source : OTO Melara

MBDA Missile Systems VL-MICA

The MBDA VL-Mica is a short range vertical launch surface to air missile for point and close-area defense. It offers all weather capability against a wide range of aerial threats including aircrafts, helicopters, missiles, precision guided munitions and smart bombs in a modular and compact setup. It also features autonomous guidance and extremely short reaction time and has multiple target capability for defense against saturation anti-ship attacks. The MICA missile is available with two different seekers - Infrared (IR) and Radio Frequency (RF), both highly resistant to countermeasures and decoys, ensuring a high hit probability. The VL-MICA will be deployed in a 12 cell vertical launch system ( VLS ) in the forward section of the LMV just aft of the OTO Melara main gun. They have never been previously deployed in the RSN and are far more capable than the Mistral missile found on the PVs and perhaps the Barak missile on the MCVs as well.

The MBDA VL-MICA at launch. Source : MBDA

The VL-MICA vertical launch system seen here in a 12 cell configuration.
Source : MBDA

VL-MICA missiles with heat seeking IR seeker ( top ) and
 radar guided RF seeker ( bottom ). MBDA

VL-MICA with IR seeker inside VLS. Source : MBDA

The LRAD 1000RX

LRAD Corporation has many different products for its clients from the ultra portable to the heavy weight for vessels and land installations. I must admit I am not certain if it is this particular model that the RSN has chosen for the LMV but the 1000RX resembles the shape of the LRAD seen in RSN's full scale bridge mockup.

The LRAD 1000RX is a long range acoustic hailing device. It projects sound in a focused and directional manner to standoff distances said to be up to 3000m. It broadcasts clear, authoritative voice commands and a whole range of eardrum busting warning tones to modify the behavior of potential threats and thus provide additional time to escalate the use of force if necessary.

It is rugged, simple to operate, has low power requirements and has an all-weather capability. It can be remotely controlled over an IP network and can be integrated with cameras and high intensity xenon lights. From the product brochures " As part of a layered communication and EOF ( escalation of force ) strategy, LRAD systems provide military personnel additional time and distance to distinguish between security threats and innocent civilians before employing lethal force ".

Two would be installed at the bridge wing.

The LRAD 1000RX mounted on a warship. Source : LRAD

Front view of the LRAD 1000RX with camera and xenon light. Source : LRAD

Rear view of the LRAD 1000RX with camera and xenon light. Source : LRAD

Water Cannons

The LMVs are also equipped with water cannons as part of their non-lethal arsenal. Two would be installed at the bridge wing next to the LRAD.

Lack Of Anti-Submarine Capability

A quick look at the sensors and weapon systems and you would have noticed that the LMV does not have a sonar system for submarine detection. Neither does it have any torpedo tubes, anti-submarine rockets or depth charges, the staple for any self-respecting anti-submarine platform. Of course this omission is intentional. The LMVs are not supposed to be ASW assets just as their predecessors, the Fearless-class PVs are currently solely used for coastal defense and maritime security operations only.

Of the original twelve PVs commissioned by the RSN, six are of the ASW variant with bow mounted sonar and torpedo launchers. They are known as the Anti-submarine Patrol Vessels or APVs. One of the APV, RSS Courageous, was badly damaged in a collision with a container ship in 2003 and was stricken from the navy list.

The remaining five APVs subsequently had their ASW equipment removed and for the past few years had been performing normal patrol duties with the other six non-ASW sister ships. This could be due to the fact that since 2005 the RSN had acquired a better ASW platform in the form of the Formidable-class frigates, and together with the Victory-class corvettes which are also capable ASW ships ( variable depth sonars ), they made the APVs redundant.  ( Note : the Victory-class seems to have also lost their ASW capabilities, after the Scan Eagle UAV upgrade )

At the same time, the threat of terrorism post 9/11 and the surge in piracy activities around the Straits of Melaka and surrounding Indonesian waters meant that there was and still is an increased need to step up maritime security operations in and around Singapore. That burden fell on the shoulders of the eleven APVs and PVs and the men and women of the 182 SQN and 189 SQN. These brave warriors reportedly spend up to a third of their time on sea duties away from the comforts of their home and loved ones. With the arrival of the new LMVs which are bigger and more sea worthy, at least the sailors can have more room and more comfort while on their routines.

Keeping Singapore Safe. The iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel
and Casino stand in the back ground. Source : Republic of Singapore Navy.

Missions and Modules

The LMVs are well equipped for routine territorial waters patrol duties but their size and endurance and the helicopter landing deck means that they can also be adapted to take on more demanding missions further afield with the appropriate mission module. For example, adding a containerized medical module for Humanitarian and Disaster Relief ( HADR ) missions is a no brainer. Other mission modules may include mine countermeasures module ( MCM ), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance module ( ISR ), oceanography and undersea surveillance module, and perhaps a special operations module. Needless to say, LMVs can also be called upon to perform the usual escort duties and provide naval gunfire support.

Littoral Mission Vessel vs Littoral Combat Ship

Though build along similar concepts of multi-mission adaptability for coastal operations, they are not to be confused with the US Navy's Littoral Combat Ship ( LCS ) which comes in two distinctive versions, the monohull Freedom-class ( LCS-1 ) and the trimaran Independence-class ( LCS-2 ). It is with LCS-2 that the most confusion may arise for the uninitiated as they are both known as " Independence-class " littoral something.

USS Freedom ( LCS-1 ) Littoral Combat Ship in transit off
Southern California in a USN Photo taken on 28th Apr 2015.

Potential name confusion : The Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship
USS Independence ( LCS-2 ) at RIMPAC 2014. USN Photo.

Bigger, Meaner and Leaner

Now you have a better idea of what the LMV is and what it is capable of :

Bigger : At 1250 tonnes and 80m, the LMV is a lot bigger than the PV which is only 55m in length and about 500 tonnes. Bigger means better sea keeping, better endurance, space for more weapon systems, space for bigger and more capable systems, more space for working and living, space for future upgrades ... and also more areas to clean before First Lieutenant rounds.

Meaner : The LMV has the same 76mm main gun as the PV, but everything else is superior. VL MICA instead of Mistral for air and missile defense, additional 25mm chain gun, remotely controlled instead of manually manned 12.7mm HMG, options for non-lethal response, better radar, better electro-optics sensors, capability to carry a medium-lift helicopter, UAV, USV and UUV, infusion of stealth technology ... the list goes on.

Leaner : The entire ship manned by just 23 men. The smaller PV needed 30 and a typical sea patrol involves 30 to 35 personnel. And under the multi-crew concept each PV has 2 sets of deployable crew. A WWII era destroyer escort of a similar tonnage would have required something like 15 officers and 200 enlisted men to operate. Until DSTA, DARPA or somebody finds a way to build a 1250 tonne USV or a squad of robotic sailors, 23 men is about as few as you get away with. Don't anyone forget the domestic before the First Lieutenant rounds. Some things just cannot be automated!

Food For Thought

The RSN's Patrol Vessels are currently less than 20 years old and could have been upgraded to extend their service life for another 10 years or more. The Singapore Armed Forces is known for its frugality and would not have replaced an old equipment until it has exhausted all upgrade options or when it has become economically unviable to continue using or maintaining that weapon system. The fact that these PVs are being replaced a little earlier than usual means there has to be other reasons behind that decision. Most probably it reflects the dire manpower situation within the Navy.

Declining birth rates have reduced the annual intake of conscripted personnel. At the same time career naval personnel are leaving the Navy for the private sector. Even for those who remain with the service, how many would voluntarily want to be in the PV squadron with their punishing patrolling routines? I would rather be with the frigates if I had the choice. There are simply too many PVs that require too many men ( and women ) to staff.

So RSN's solution is to use technology to overcome this shortage in manpower. Get rid of the PVs, replace them with fewer but bigger ships that each require less manpower resources to operate. Make the ships more appealing to work in and more comfortable to live in and hopefully that will make staff retention easier.

Fortunately, with regards to the shortage in manpower, new technology is not the only trick up the RSN's sleeves. After 48 years of existence, the Republic of Singapore Navy has a vast pool of reserve personnel to depend upon in times of crisis. They maintain their proficiency through annual recalls ( known as in-camp training ) that frequently involves a period of sea deployment on their respective vessels. Already the RSN has staffed an entire ship with reserve personnel. The missile corvette RSS Vigilance is a such an example.

This article is a tribute to the men and women of the Patrol Vessel Squadron of the Republic of Singapore Navy. They are the unsung heroes that have kept the waters of Singapore safe all these years.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Royal Thai Navy To Buy Chinese Submarines : Another Thaitanic Mistake? Updated


The Navy Jack of Thailand. Source : Wikipedia

In July 1992, the Thai government commissioned the Spanish shipbuilder Empresa Nacional Bazan ( now Navantia ) to construct the helicopter carrier HTMS Chakri Naruebet. Its design was based on the Spanish Navy's light aircraft carrier the Principe de Asturias which came with a 12 degree ski-jump and it was supposed to operate a fleet of ex-Spanish 8 AV-8S Matador V/STOL and S-70 Seahawk helicopters.

Its originally envisaged roles as the flagship of the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) included patrols and force projection around the territorial waters and the exclusive economic zones of Thailand, supporting amphibious operations, disaster relief and humanitarian missions etc. The cost of its construction was reported as USD 336 million then, and would be equivalent to approximately $580 million in today's currency.

Unfortunately for the RTN, the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997 struck just as the Chakri Naruebet was commissioned. The Thais were left without any funds to operate the helicopter carrier or maintain its air wing of Matadors. For most of the time the ship never left its home port of Sattahip Naval Base. Occasionally it was used as a ferry to transport the Royal Family.

Royal Thai Navy's aircraft carrier Chakri Naruebet in a picture dated back to 2001. A AV-8S Matador can be seen on the flight deck. Source : Wikipedia

By 1999, there was only one Matador still operational, and they were eventually written off all together by 2006, leaving the helicopter carrier without any operational fixed-wing assets. The prestige of being the first Southeast Asian country to own an aircraft carrier brought with it a heavy financial burden that the Thais could ill afford then and now. There was no real need to have an aircraft carrier in the first place when a Land Ship Dock (LSD) type of vessel could serve a similar purpose of supporting amphibious ops and Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) ops. In fact the RTN subsequently bought exactly such a vessel from ST Marine of Singapore, the Endurance-class LSD. The story of the Chakri Naruebet is cautionary tale of what not to do in the procurement of military hardware and to this day it has been a white elephant and has been nicknamed the Thaitanic, presumably because of its physical size and its huge price tag.

The Type-039A Yuan-class SSK of the People's Liberation Army Navy. At US$335 million each, a deal too good to miss?

Fast forward to 2015, in the past few days the internet has been abuzz with news that Thailand has more or less committed itself to buying three Chinese conventional diesel-electric submarines for USD 1.1 billion. Is this really such a good deal that Thailand cannot refuse or is it another mega-mistake in the making?

Do The Thais Need Submarines?

The naval brass would certainly like to convince anyone that they do need submarines. They NEEDED them and they needed them bad. So bad in fact, that in July 2014 they had setup their submarine squadron complete with submarine training school at Sattahip Naval Base without yet having acquired any submersible assets. The squadron is staffed by naval personnel who have previously been sent to Germany and South Korea for submarine training and has a Rheinmetall submarine command team trainer simulator. IHS Jane's reported that the facilities cost USD 23 million to set up.

To be fair to the Thais ( and to anyone else as well ), modern naval warfare is multi-dimensional and the undersea component forms an increasing important aspect which cannot be neglected or ignored. That alone is good enough reason for the RTN to aspire to own submarines.

Also, of the five original core members of ASEAN ( Association of Southeast Asian Nations ), Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, yes, even tiny Singapore, have already been operating submarines for decades. Only Thailand and the Philippines have yet to catch up.

On top of that Thailand also has an extremely long coastline to govern, from the western side facing the Andaman Sea to the eastern side around the Gulf of Thailand next to the resource rich but volatile South China Sea.

Of course we also know that the best platform to hunt a submarine is another submarine. So if I were a Thai naval brass I would definitely want to have subs. The short answer is YES. Whether the budget allows for it is another matter.

Can the Thais Afford Submarines?

This could be a much harder question to answer. They probably could if they budgeted their defense spending wisely. The military-run government had proposed a 2016 defence budget of USD 6.1 billion, equivalent to about 1.5% of GDP and constituting about 8% of all government spending. This represented an increase of 7% over the 2015 defence spending.

After much deliberation, the Thais had decided on the Chinese offer of three diesel-electric attack submarines for a grand total of USD 1.1 billion. This would constitute about a sixth of their annual defence spending, a significant portion by anyone's standards. They would have to seriously tighten their belts in other areas to afford this. But I wouldn't be surprised if the Chinese had also offered to finance the deal like what they usually do when trying to sell their high speed rail systems overseas. It would definitely be more palatable if the payment is spread in installments over a period of 7 to 10 years.

In retrospect, had the Thais not embarked on their disastrous Rice Subsidy Scheme from 2011 to 2014 which cost the Thai government an estimated USD 15.3 billion buying rice from farmers at above market rates, the RTN could have bought about 45 Chinese subs ( at $335 million each ) with that money.

Well maybe they don't ever required that many submarines, but how about 6 subs and a squadron of 12 Lockheed Martin F-35B V/STOL stealth fighters ( $200 million each ) for the Thaitanic, and best of all still have about $10 billion to spare ( minus a few dollars to thermal proof the deck, if necessary )? Mind boggling figures, I would say!

Are Three Submarines Sufficient?

Thailand has about 3200km of coast line split between the eastern seaboard of the Gulf of Thailand and the western seaboard facing the Andaman Sea. The two coasts are not directly connected as the Malayan Peninsula sits right at the southern end of the narrow Kra Isthmus and blocks direct maritime access between Thailand's two coastal regions. Unless a canal is dug linking the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand, to sail from Thailand's east coast to the west coast would require going around the Malayan Peninsula and Singapore, a round trip of some 1200 nautical miles that could take 3 or 4 days at an average transit speed of 12 knots.

Sattahip ( Gulf of Thiland ) to Phuket ( Andaman Sea ) Distance and Time

If Thailand acquires three submarines, they will likely all be based at Sattahip Naval Base, the RTN's headquarters as well as the submarine squadron's HQ. Assuming the usual availability rates of one boat on station, one in preparedness and one on maintenance, the RTN will at anytime only have one submarine on patrol and it has to be either in the Gulf of Thailand or in the Andaman Sea. This submarine cannot be at two different places at the same time. Should a crisis situation develop at the other Area of Operations it would be at least three to four days of sailing away. Clearly not desirable.

So ideally from the operational point of view the RTN should have six boats, three for the Gulf and three for Andaman. It is much cheaper this way compared to digging the fabled Kra Canal, with an estimated cost of USD 28 billion, the pipe dream of one too many Thai politician.

Choices, Choices

In June 2010, due to budgetary constrains, the German Navy unexpectedly decommissioned the last six of its Cold War era Type 206A diesel-electric submarines originally slated for retirement between 2011 and 2015. The following year, two of the submarines were then offered to the Thai Navy at a bargain price of USD 220 million. The Thais agreed in principle to buy the submarines but the subsequent political turmoil resulting from change of government meant that they ultimately let the offer lapse. The Type 206As were rather small, displacing about 500 tonnes submerged, but modernised machines with littoral and special forces capabilities, two key features which made them ideal for the shallow waters around Thailand.

Revell Type-206A Box Art. A total of 18 Type-206 SSK were built in the early seventies for the West German Navy. 12 were subsequently modernized in the nineties and re-designated the Type-206A. All have since been retired from service by the Bundesmarine. Cost : $14.76 for the Revell plastic model kit and $220 million for a pair of the real deal.

Buying a pair of the used Type-206A would actually serve the RTN very well as they are compact and are not too complicated, the ideal training platform for a fledgling submarine squadron to quickly accumulate operational experience. They are also much more budget friendly compared to the other options available to the RTN. After this stint the RTN may eventually consider upgrading to bigger and more modern submarines, perhaps even new-builds. Sadly this option is no longer available.

Then there was the Korean offer of two Type 209-1200 SSKs for about USD 1.3 billion. As we know, South Korea has an advanced, world-leading ship building industry and they have capitalized on that advantage to licence build the Type-209 SSK from HDW ( now ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems ) not just for their own navy but also for export. In fact they were awarded a contract to construct three Type-209-1400 SSKs for the Indonesian Navy in 2011 for USD 1.07 billion. The Korean Type-209s are also known as the Chang Bogo-class. They are modernized versions of the original Type-209-1100 boats and have stretched hulls and indigenously developed torpedo countermeasure systems and may even accommodate an Air Independent Propulsion system in the 1500 tonne version. They are light-years more advanced than the second-hand Type-206As but also cost a lot more, so much more that the Thais decided that they could not afford them.

They also reportedly turned down South Korea's offer of two of their 20 year old Type-209s for 15 billion Baht or about USD 500 million. Old hulls like these need modenisation works ( obviously not for free ) and would probably last for another decade at most after which they would have to be retired and fresh funds would be needed for new boats.

Pacific Ocean (July 6, 2004) Republic of Korea Submarine Chang Bogo (SSK 61) heads out to sea during exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC). U. S. Navy photo

The Thais then knocked on the doors of the Swedes, eyeing the Gotland class SSK, but the Swedish Navy do not have anymore surplus boats to sell, after divesting two of their four Type-A17 Vastergotland-class to Singapore, they were left with 2 upgraded A17s and 3 Type-A19 Gotland-class SSK, barely enough to cover their backyard. Their new A26s were delayed by the tactics of ThyssenKrupp who at that time were at the helm of the national boat yard Kockums AB, further dashing any hopes of a Swede deal.

The Chinese Option

Thailand has been a fan of Chinese weaponry for quite sometime. The Royal Thai Army deploys Chinese armoured personnel carriers, multiple launch rocket systems, combat engineer vehicles, rocket propelled grenades and various types machine guns and assault rifles. The RTN similarly has in its inventory four Chinese Type-053 Jianghu III guided missile frigate ( the Chao Praya-class ), two modified Type-053 ( the Naresuan-class ), various Off-shore Patrol Vessels and an auxillary ship. So they are no stranger to Chinese technology and their idiosyncrasies.

The Chinese had actually offered the Thais their Type-039 Song-class SSK as far back as 2007 but the Thais favoured the German offer of the Type-206As then, only to renege on their decision later.

The original Type-039 Song-class SSK with its distinctive stepped conning tower. This or perhaps its improved version, the Type-039G was offered to the Thais in 2007.

With all the failed attempts to acquire submarines in the past, the Thai Navy has in 2015 redoubled their efforts with a new round of proposals from vendors. And it seems that the Chinese have hyped up their submarine offer, throwing in three of their newest Type-039A Yuan-class diesel-electric SSKs, probably with air-independent propulsion ( AIP ) for $1.1 billion in total. The price is said to be inclusive of a eight year weaponry and parts support package, and training. They even try to seduce the Thais with the promise of significant technology transfer.

Navy chief Adm Kraisorn Chansuvanich said that a 17 man naval committee comprising of unbiased, smart and modern officers tasked to select the submarine evaluated offers from six nations including those from Russia ( Project 636 Kilo-class ), Germany ( ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, Type 209-1400 Mod and Type-210 Mod ) , Sweden ( SAAB, A-26 ), China ( Type-039A ), Korea ( Hyundai, HDS-500RTN ) and France. They voted 14-3 in favour of the Chinese package because it was value for money, getting them three submarines where as the same budget will only get them two units from the other suppliers, without the weapons. It was also mentioned that the Chinese submarines were equipped with superior weaponry and technology, and that they were able to stay underwater longer compared to their rival bids. This I interpret as a hint that the Chinese offer will be fitted with AIP systems.

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wonsuwon has firmly extended his support for the project on the back of real or perceived territorial treats saying that the submarine force is a deterrence and the future of Thailand's security. He would forward the procurement decision to the Cabinet for approval once the opportunity arises. With a junta government in power and a large part of the Cabinet members being made up of generals and admirals, we know that this approval procedure rubbish is just a formality. The submarine purchase is as good as a done deal. Had a democratically elected government been in power, the outcome might be entirely different as there are always some who question the justification for a submarine force in the light of the white elephant Thaitanic. In fact, General Prawit has been quoted to say that if the submarines were not bought by the current government, the navy might not get the chance to acquire them again. He knows, that sly fox!

The entire deal is worth THB 36 billion ( USD 1.1 billion ) and the procurement will proceed through a government to government agreement. It would require an unspecified amount of funding from Thailand's defense budget in the next 7 to 10 years. Once the Cabinet approves the budget, the submarines are expected to be commissioned over the next 6 to 7 years. So it's back to the simulator and Chinese language class till then.

The Type-039A Yuan-class SSK / Type-041 / S-26T

The Type-039A is the successor of original Type-039 Song-class diesel-electric submarine. It evolved from the Type-039 but has little resemblance to it and is frequently referred to as the Type-041 SSK. It is the first Chinese submarine with AIP and is supposed to be quiet and have advanced features like anechoic tiles. It has a teardrop shaped hull and a large sail suggesting of a design stemming from Russia's Kilo-class SSK which China also owns. The original People's Liberation Army Navy ( PLAN ) version has a length of 75m, a beam of 8m and a draft of 8.2m. Its displacement is 2300 tonnes surfaced and 3600 tonnes submerged. Its armaments include 6 x 533mm torpedo tubes which can fire Russian or Chinese torpedoes as well as the YJ-8X series of submarine launched anti-ship missiles. The endurance is said to be 6500 nautical miles at 12 knots. Maximum speed is 12 knots surfaced and 20 knots submerged. Maximum diving depth is in the region of 300 metres.

There is also an export version designated the S-20 first revealed at IDEX 2013 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The S-20 appears to be a scaled down version of the Type-039A displacing 1850 tonnes surfaced and 2300 tonnes submerged. It comes without an AIP system but can be an option should the client choose. And now it seems we have the S-26T version with AIP which was offered to Thailand.

The PLAN Type-039A diesel-electric SSK with AIP. Still in brown waters?

The Type-039As have been in service with the PLAN since the year 2006. 13 boats are currently in active service with a total of 20 planned. As with most Chinese military hardware, very little information about the Type-39A is publicly available even though it has been around for close to a decade. Confusion with nomenclature is the norm, and even the reliability of existing information is sometimes uncertain.

Waterline view of the Type-039A.

Booster stage of the YJ-82 submarine launched anti-ship missile as it pops out of the water immediately after launch.

Apart from Thailand, the Bangladeshi Navy is in negotiations for acquiring two Type-039As and the Pakistani government had in April this year approved the purchase of 8 Type-039A submarines from China, representing a huge export success. China has not been a significant submarine exporter in the past, selling a few units now and then mainly to close communists allies and pariah states that could not have obtained weapons from the international market otherwise, like North Korea.

Submarine ( Non-nuclear ) Construction In China

It had began with the assembly of the Whisky-class conventionally powered submarine with kits provided by the Soviets in the fifties. Starting from the late sixties, China progressed to licence build the next generation Romeo-class SSK, known locally as the Type-033. They then started producing the indigenously designed Type-035 Ming-class SSK in the seventies, though it is somewhat similar to the Romeo-class. Following their purchase of Russia's Kilo-class and improved Kilo-class SSK, the next generation Chinese SSKs, the Type-039 and Type-039A again have uncanny similarities with the Kilo. One cannot help but suspect that out of sight of the international rivals and clients there must be a lot of reverse engineering going on inside the state owned Chinese yards. And that's nothing new. The Chinese have a " indigenously designed " copy of almost everything they had previously owned, and even of things that they didn't own. Would you trust a pirate?

Sukhoi SU-27? Wrong. This is the Shenyang J-11 ( 歼-11 / Jian-11 ), the Chinese clone. Source : Wikipedia

The Real Deal : The Thomson-CSF ( now Thales ) Sea Crotale R440 SAM on the French frigate Tourville circa 1990. Source : Wikipedia

The Unaurhorised Copy : The Hongqi-7 or HQ-7 SAM on the PLAN Type-051B destroyer Shenzhen Source : Wikipedia

Chinese Workmanship

If you have worked or dealt with the Chinese before, you would have quickly noticed that the average Chinese worker cares little about workmanship and product quality. They are more concerned about meeting deadlines and getting their job done in as little time as possible, never mind if they are churning out rubbish in the process. Their idea about quality control is - as long as it works, it's good enough! They don't give a damn if it breaks down three days later. So if the guy making your shoe bag has this kind of attitude, do you think the worker at the state owned shipyards would fare any better??? Well maybe a little better, because a $5 shoe bag is not in the same league as a $335 million submarine, but you trust the communists?

The Thais should have known better as they found out the hard way with their China build Chao Praya-class frigates in the early nineties. These are actually the Chinese Type-053 Jiangkai III FFGs build to the then latest Type-053H2 standard. Although they cost only a quarter of what a frigate would normally cost if purchased from European or American suppliers, they came with multiple defects and deficiencies including exposed wirings that needed to be rewired, limited damage control capabilities with defects in the fire suppression system and problems with the water-tight locks. Considerable efforts was spent to rectify the defects.

Smart Choice Or Another Disaster In The Making?

The Chinese have alienated many of they traditional friends and trading partners in Southeast Asia by their increasingly aggressive pursuit of their territorial claims in the South China Sea, even to the extend of land reclamation and building airstrips at Fiery Cross Reef. They are desperate to improve ties with Thailand, one of the rare countries in Southeast Asia not directly involved in the territorial disputes with China. This they have certainly achieved by clinching the submarine deal.

Keeping in mind the potential problems with quality issues for Chinese products, would the Thais have done better by selecting submarines from other countries? After all, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys! SAAB's A-26 submarines look particularly attractive at the SEK 8.2 billion ( USD 948 million ) price the Swedish government paid for two boats. These are the latest state-of-the-art Swedish submarines with AIP and European quality assurance. Thailand already has a good defense relation with the SAAB Group with their previous purchase of the JAS-39 Gripen fighter and the SAAB 340 AEW aircraft. Why not capitalize on this?

Hind sight is always 20/20 but I can't help but point out that had the Thai Navy bought a squadron of submarines instead of an aircraft carrier in 1992, they would by now have almost 2 decades of experience operating submarines. They really cannot afford to make another mistake like the Chakri Naruebet, because at $1.1 billion, the stakes are much higher this time.


It seemed that on the very day that this article was published ( 15th Jul 2015 ), the Thai Government had already changed their minds about the purchase of the S-26T submarines from China. The postponement was announced following high levels of criticism questioning the rationale behind the acquisition and the quality of the submarines the government intended to procure. Defence Minister Prawit said that when the Thai Cabinet next convene to assess the procurement, he would not yet seek endorsement for the acquisition. A stronger mandate was necessary. " For now the navy must inform itself and educate itself on whether the submarines are worth it and how much they will add to the Thai navy. "

IHS Jane's Defence Weekly ( Vol 52 Issue 29 22 Jul 2015 Pg 7 ) carried this comment to its main headlines article Thailand Halts Purchase of Chinese Subs : " Critics of the plan, however, have questioned the need for the submarines given Thailand's lack of strategic assets in the disputed regions of the South China Sea; doubted the RTN's ability to operate the submarines effectively in the shallower waters of the Gulf of Thailand; and highlighted Thailand's poorly performing economy. Questions have also been raised about the quality of the Chinese submarines, which have yet to conclude any exports.", exactly the issues discussed in this blog.

This about turn barely two weeks after the initial announcement does not reflect well on the professionalism of Thai Defence Ministry and the RTN's top leadership. Shouldn't they have done all the necessary leg work to sound out the public opinion, secure the necessary funding and convince the skeptics that the project is doable before announcing it to the whole world? Nonetheless, loss of face aside, this could be a blessing in disguise as Thailand now has a chance to re-evaluate her requirements for a submarine squadron and re-think about buying from China, before the next round of acquisition talks begins sometime in the future.

Maybe the RTN is still unsure of what it wants, being so easily swayed by public opinion to abandon the submarine project, maybe it is just bad timing, or perhaps the Ghosts of Failed Projects Past have simply come back to haunt them ... like they say, you can't always run from your past.

Note : If you would like to read an adapted version of this article in Thai you can visit


Update 4th Jul 2016

Now, almost exactly one year after this article was published, the Thai Navy finally got the Cabinet approval they needed for the purchase of the submarines. The total cost for the 3 Yuan-class S26T will be USD 1 billion and payment will be made over a 10 year period. The first submarine will be purchased out of the 2017 budget. The Defense Minister claimed that there are assets in the Andaman Sea to protect too ....